We purchased a cottage on the north shore of Lake Erie, in Chatham Kent, Ontario, because we needed a test kitchen. Little did we know that just 20 minutes away, in the midst of farm fields filled with history, in North Buxton, we would discover life-long friends.
Our Introduction to Buxton
Shortly after settling into our test kitchen, we visited the Buxton National Historic Site & Museum in North Buxton, one of the last stops along the Underground Railroad, a network of supporters who hid and guided refugees from slavery in the American south. We met Shannon Prince, curator of the museum. Alongside their grown children, Shannon and her husband, Bryan, an author and historian, farm the land that their ancestors tilled and cultivated. Shannon and Bryan are sixth generation descendants of slaves who found freedom in Canada. In addition to that, to the benefit of all of us, they are dedicated to preserving and telling the story of their part of Canada’s history. We liked them instantly.
The Buxton National Historic Site & Museum includes an 1852 log cabin, an 1853 barn, 1861 schoolhouse, 1866 church, and a cemetery dating back to the 1850s when fugitives first began to arrive in Canada. The Museum was built to maintain and interpret artifacts and to share the history of what was known as the Elgin Settlement. It contains extensive genealogy resource materials.
Buxton History – Ties to the Land
The Elgin Settlement, whose geographic scope includes the current villages of South Buxton and North Buxton, began in 1849 when Reverend William King brought fifteen American slaves from the state of Louisiana to freedom in Canada. The community grew as fugitive slaves and free people of colour traveled to the area, many via the Underground Railroad.
Reverend King and a group of anti-slavery philanthropists, organized as The Elgin Association, acquired nearly 9000 acres of land that were divided into 50 acre lots and sold to the settlers for $2.50 per acre with ten years to pay. Rev. King established rules because he wanted the black settlers to succeed. To prove them equal to the white settlers, he wanted them to have the same opportunities. The Elgin Settlement land could only be purchased by blacks and when their debt was paid, the land could only be sold to blacks. There were minimum housing standards with each house to have at least four rooms, to be set back a certain distance from the road, to have a picket fence, flower garden, vegetable garden and porch. Because no outside charity was to be accepted, the new settlers from the south built a schoolhouse, a saw and grist mill, a potash and pearlash factory, a brick yard, hotel, blacksmith shop, and dry goods store.
The Elgin Settlement valued education. The original log schoolhouse, built on Reverend King’s farm in what is now South Buxton, opened its doors, on the first day of class, to 14 black and 2 white children. As the reputation grew around the level of education provided in the settlement, within a year there were more white children enrolled in the settlement school than in the regular district school. Many of Buxton’s graduates, over the years, went on to higher education and careers as doctors, lawyers, teachers, writers, politicians, and preachers.
Studying class pictures in the cloakroom of the school, we easily found both Shannon and Bryan among their brothers, sisters, and cousins. Standing with us, Shannon pointed out her aunt and her grandfather. And her favourite teachers.
The population of the Elgin Settlement peaked at around 1200. Today the population of North Buxton is approximately 170.
The Buxton Liberty Bell was a gift from the black community of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. During the development of the Elgin Settlement the bell was rung each time a fugitive reached freedom in Buxton.
On one of our tours of the museum, after Shannon described the details of captured slaves traveling to North America under horrible conditions, and how, years later, their descendants followed the north star to Canada, she encouraged us to ring the bell. The loud metallic clang-clang clang-clang rang out across the ploughed fields and down the streets of North Buxton. It was emotional to be sending the reminder, to anyone who could hear it, that not so long ago at the sound of the same toll of the bell, one more former slave was free in Buxton.
North Buxton Today – Family Bonds
A pear tree in the middle of a field across the road from the museum, on the Robbins farm where Shannon grew up, still marks the spot of the first Buxton Homecoming in 1924. The event began as an opportunity for families that had left Buxton for other parts of Canada, the United States, and the world, to return and reconnect.
The original one-day homecoming event has evolved into a full four-day annual Homecoming Celebration that includes a US/Canadian History & Genealogy Conference, family picnics, a family-feud baseball tournament, basketball games, dances, historical re-enactments, and parade.
On Labour Day weekend, every family in Buxton has company. Driveways are lined with cars. Tents are pitched; trailers are parked; grills are lit. Family teams practice on the basketball courts and baseball diamonds behind the museum. Entertainment runs all day and into the night. Clusters of family reunions gather under the trees and around picnic tables. On Labour day Monday, about mid-morning, more cars begin to arrive. People from as near as neighbouring farms, to as far away as a plane will bring them from, set up their lawn chairs and coolers along the sides of the road for the annual parade.
By combining the Buxton National Historic Site & Museum genealogy material with social networking and the assistance of Bryan Prince, Michele Annette Parker Samuels located the gravesite of her great, great grandmother Eliza Ann Elizabeth Howard, the wife of William Parker. Eliza was a well-known women’s rights pioneer and activist. Arrested in Pennsylvania, in 1851, for aiding in the violent resistance to the capture and re-enslavement of her fellow fugitives, she played an important role in American history.
In September, 2013, Michele Annette Parker Samuels unveiled the memorial to Eliza Ann Elizabeth Howard. She told the intimate gathering her great, great grandmother’s historic story and then invited anyone who knew of a family tie to her ancestor to come forward. In the next few minutes she was surrounded by relatives, some of whom she had never met before and who had never met each other.
When he is not driving the combine in his soybean fields, Bryan is an historian and public speaker with a focus on the Underground Railroad and history of North Buxton. He is the author of four books: My Brother’s Keeper, One More River to Cross, A Shadow on the Household, and I Came as a Stranger.
When Shannon is not captivating visitors with information at the museum, portraying historical characters, driving a tractor, or organizing a family event, she can be spotted directing traffic at Homecoming.
The doors of Shannon and Bryan’s home never close for long with children, grandchildren, friends, neighbours, and relatives streaming in and out. The chairs around their over-sized dining table in the kitchen are seldom empty. Food, hot out of the oven or just off the smoker, is spread around the kitchen table and counters. Every time we are in their home, we meet new people with new stories to tell. Shannon and Bryan have enriched and expanded our world with their hospitality. Together, we have celebrated Christmas, Thanksgiving, a birth, an end of life, birthdays, and our book signing.
The Future of North Buxton
We know that North Buxton’s future is in good hands with Buxton’s Next Generation (BNG). By following their mandate to “engage our youth and preserve our culture,” Buxton’s Next Generation is passing on what was done for them and what was done for each generation before them, by the generation before them – maintaining roots and a sense of place for everyone with a Buxton history.
In the beginning, some of the white settlers thought the black setters in the Elgin Settlement were inferior. Reverend King set out to prove that blacks were equal. Together, he and the settlers succeeded.
Black History is celebrated internationally in the month of February. In North Buxton, where the bonds of family and ties to the land are strong, it is celebrated all year round and the invitation is always open to join in.
Thank you, Shannon and Bryan Prince, for sharing the Buxton experience with us – and for welcoming us into your family.